How would you define a caring city? What would be the first
association you have?
admit that I glanced at what is being written about this term elsewhere. I
agree with the definition that the city should take care of its citizens, and
by that I mean everyone, in an equal
way. The city must take care of those who are the minority or marginalized
(whether because they are poor or because they are different on some basis),
that is, of everyone who needs some kind of support. I think that is the duty
of every city as a community.
And when I say city, I mean both people and institutions in the city. This is where we come to another point - I think that care should also go both ways. People, its citizens, should also take care of their city. One can’t expect to get everything and give nothing in return. We must take care of other people, but also of physical structures, social structures, nature, everything.
We would like to take a closer look into the
concepts of functionality and security in the city, from a
minoritarian perspective, that is, from the perspective of the vulnerable groups.
I do not have the impression that cities in Serbia are actually unsafe, that is, that there is the same kind of insecurity in Serbia that is present in some other European and global cities. Having said that, however, there certainly are places that are not safe - abandoned, devastated, insufficiently lit public spaces are not safe, just as those places that have no infrastructure, such as the informal Roma settlements.
Cities are also unsafe for pedestrians. Not to repeat what we already know, but physical obstacles exist for mothers moving with strollers or people in wheelchairs; signaling does not properly function; construction sites are unsecured. If we continue with the question of functionality, it is clear that cities are not functional enough and that is - not functional enough for everyone. For example, fellow citizens who are moving with difficulties may not be noticeable on the street, but that is because it’s actually impossible for them to be on the streets. Around 8% of people in Serbia have some kind of disability, did you know that? That's some 600.000 persons, mostly elderly people. I think that it is something that needs to be addressed when we think about our cities. I have the impression that even when something is repaired or reconstructed in the public space, it is done with the needs of the cars in mind, rather than pedestrians. Now, we know that cars are owned by members of the middle and upper middle class, white, able men. This illustrates how we come to a situation in which the city is actually functionally organized primarily for one particular group.
What is your personal experience of being a
woman in the architecture profession and would you highlight any specific
obstacles you might have had?
When I entered university, the number of male and female students was quite equal. I also don’t remember having an impression that there was any gender-based bias behavior towards students at the university at that time. Still, the fact is that professors and associates were mostly men at the time [as it is still the case today]. Now that I think of it, I am not sure any woman from my generation remained working as the faculty staff.
I turned to
urban planning [as opposed to architectural design], which has always been a
primarily female field. However, if you have more women in some professional
field, it usually means that it is a harder, less paid, less fashionable, or
more collective-based job. It was a good match for me because I always aspired
to do what I love, but I am very aware that urban planning is such a field. I
remember that, just as an illustration, that at one point, Urban Institute of
Belgrade, the main institution responsible for the development of all urban
plans in the territory of Belgrade, had all women as employees in the teams,
while all managers were men. I even think that can be read from the photographs
of the Institute from the seventies.
very few architects focus on the topic of social housing and housing of
vulnerable groups, specifically the Roma, on which I primarily focus. Among
those few, I feel there are no gender-based inequalities. This might be a
consequence of the fact that I have been dealing with this topic for a long
time and have earned some credit for it, but I also think the main reason could
be that those who deal with such topics have a bit different sensitivity than
most architects - they have developed the capacity for empathy.
One must have empathy and self-reflection when working with vulnerable communities.
And how do you achieve that? How do you build
trust? How do you avoid looking like an intruder
who is trying to extract something from the community for personal gain or
My experience is mostly related to Roma settlements. When one comes to a Roma settlement, one usually comes with someone whom the community already knows and trusts. This is also often necessary because of the language, as well. Then you start from an idea or a plan, and you are always limited by time and financial resources, so you try to do everything as best as you can in such circumstances, and do as little damage as possible. Another thing I find very important is honesty. It is important to acknowledge that you are working with people who have not always had the privilege to be highly educated, whose life experience is specific. They do have their own suggestions, although you might not always fully grasp their rationale. I think it is important to be very honest and clear about what is possible or what is realistic, to work collectively with the community to find ways to meet the possible and their needs - that is the easiest way to make something useful and sustainable.
Last year you published the study
"Holistic approach to housing".
What does a holistic approach mean
and why is it important?
majority of people who deal with the question of housing are very aware that an
apartment is more than four walls and a roof over the head and that it is
necessary to work with people who use those apartments and include social and
health services, and establish a connection between housing and employment and
the possibility of earning income. That is the only way to substantially
improve living conditions of the most vulnerable. The publication you mention
arose from a project called "Social Housing and Active Inclusion",
during which there was a need to put on paper what we know by know on the
subject and what a holistic approach actually means in practice. We have
written about housing models before, so this is in a sense an upgrade to
previous publications - but this is the first one that can be used by local
governments, so when they open it, they see that there are realistic housing
models, and right next to them, mandatory measures for housing inclusion. In
this publication, we focused on four vulnerable groups: Roma, women survivors
of domestic violence, people with disabilities and young people leaving the
social protection system. But it is also applicable to members of other
Why did you mark in the publication the
principles of gender equality and participation as crucial for the holistic
not be a minority when on look at the population statistics, but they very
often remain invisible in existing social housing programs and initiatives. In
order to get equal treatment, women need to be additionally supported because
they are excluded from so many programs. For example, research shows that among
young people leaving the welfare system, young men receive support more often
than young women, although there is no rational explanation for this.
Furthermore, in the last ten years, around 300 women have been killed in
Serbia, and their economic and spatial dependence on abusers brought them to
the situation of eventually being killed. The question of asymmetric ownership
among men and women is directly connected to the issue of domestic violence.
Also, only a small number of women have access to safe houses, and even if they
do, they can usually stay only up to a month or six months in them. If there
really was a will to solve this issue, those women should be asked what
solutions they see as the best suited. So, when operationalizing a gender
equality in social housing, just to give one example, we insist on the
ownership over the housing unit to be equally distributed among partners from
And then - participation. I have already talked a lot about why it is important to work collaboratively with the users, and I would like to add that it is also important to work with people in municipalities. The more people from the administration are involved in the process, and the more knowledgeable they are, the more likely social housing will be well received. Moreover, when social housing is being constructed, let’s inform and consult the community as well. Participation will not only sensitize all those involved, but will also hopefully get to the most sustainable solution.
The solutions you talk about in the book, which
relate to groups that are not only housing but also socially excluded, imply
that there is a strong intersectoral cooperation between housing solutions and
social support/protection programs. Could you single out one or two examples
that you think are examples of good cross-sectoral cooperation?
I think one of the more successful examples is
the model of social housing in a
supportive environment [stanovanje u zaštićenim uslovima]. Initiated by the
Swiss and developed further and implemented by the organization Housing Center,
other organizations and local governments have taken over this model. The
concept changed and improved throughout the years. The concept includes the
following - an apartment building is constructed and apartments allocated to
vulnerable households for free rent and subsided utility costs. There is a
family called the host family also
living in the building, using one of the apartments under the same conditions,
but receiving some kind of compensation from the Center for Social Work or the
municipality. For that fee, this family provides support to other tenants in
the building, and at the same time serves as a liaison with centers for social
work or other services, say educational or medical. Sometimes this family even
helps with minor repairs in apartments and the building, purchases and the
like. As it is currently implemented, it is an expensive model, because the
construction of the building itself is expensive. But one could think about the
reconstruction of the existing buildings, as well as extending the “supportive
environment” beyond one particular building and to the entire neighborhood
service - housing with support - as
part of the system of social protection services, is currently primarily
intended for young people without parental care and people with disabilities.
Four to six people live in one apartment, who are supported by professionals.
The essence is not in material support, but rather in the engagement and
involvement of service users in the community. There are elaborate structural
and functional standards, as well as licensed service providers who don’t
necessarily have to be public institutions (but can come from the civil sector
as well), which I think is good.
However, regardless of the fact that there are such potent models, they are rarely consistently thought through and implemented in Serbia.
I think after all this experience, the utterly most important thing is to hear what those that are going to be living in public housing units need. But even further, we have to know the communities we are shaping the cities for and we have to understand whom we are planning and building for. But the process has to be so much beyond an interview or survey. Continual and collaborative work is the key.
Interview was conducted by Iskra Krstić, Iva Čukić and Jovana Timotijević
Zlata Vuksanović is the Senior Research Associate at Geographical Institute "Jovan Cvijic" of the Serbian Academy of Science and Art. As an urban planner and researcher, she has been primarily devoted to the topic of social housing for the vulnerable groups. Her book “Life on the Edge - Housing of the Poor in Belgrade, in the period 1919-1941” has been a great inspiration for many contemporary housing activists in Serbia.